Science Fiction Repair Shop: The Seven Deadly Sins, Over And Over Again

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2020-12-09 21:00:00 No comments

I'm not familiar with Michael O. Church generally (apparently he has a bad rep in tech circles), and the essay he wrote containing this quote has apparently been taken down, but this bit from it got my attention:

I attended a talk in which Marvin Minsky said he only read science fiction because the entire rest of literature was “the seven deadly sins, over and over again”. Now, I’d be the last to trash science fiction; but I’m not a fan of his view of, you know, the entire rest of literature. Still, this is how techies think. Everything but robots and science is trash, to them. The Singularity is going to happen in 20 years (this was true 20 years ago, and 20 years before that) and after that, the computers are going to produce so much general wealth that we will all be post-scarcity, post-nationalist, post-mortality beings. Given that, all of our art and ethics and religion and politics are so petty, we don’t need them at all. They get in the way. The techie’s argument is: sure, I’ll screw you over today, but 20 years from now you’re going to be immortal because of me.

I think Church is indulging in an overgeneralization here (not all techies are this Philistine), but with a kernel of truth at its center about certain people and their tastes. If memory serves I think I remember hearing John McCarthy, of LISP fame, expressing a similar sentiment at some point: most literature just exists to superficially manipulate the reader's emotions, not to explore ideas. This presupposes the idea that manipulation of the emotions is ipso facto bad, even when we consent to it in a controlled way. Or that the exploration of emotion is inferior to the exploration of ideas, which is also a foolish conceit.

One of the reasons I found myself unhappy with most of SF as it was actually written (as opposed to how it could be at its best, here and there) was because of how much of it seemed self-consciously aimed at a few audiences, none of which I felt a part of. One such audience was the Minskys and McCarthys of the world, people whose interest in nonscientific culture only exists inasmuch as it gives them something to think about within their narrow range of things worth thinking about. The idea that a story might exist for its own sake, as a story about people, seems alien to them. This I say while knowing full well that diversity of worldviews and mindsets is vital: the Minskys and McCarthys of the world are still good and important people. They're just not my target audience. I don't feel the slightest obligation to please people who would see my work's merit entirely in how well it sates their utilitarian predilections.

I'm going to go further and suggest that it's not worth trying to make such people into a target audience, as it's likely to come at the cost of doing violence to everything truly interesting about one's work. If something you've done appeals to the folks who turn up their noses at "the seven deadly sins, over and over again" that doesn't mean shucking off all seven-deadly-sins-isms in your work is going to make them like it even more. If anything, it might make them reject it, because they might well be responding to human elements in your story even they are not fully conscious of.

On the other hand, not everything has to appeal to everyone. There are stories that have greater or lesser general appeal, but appeal is not necessarily indexed to quality or longevity or insight or any number of other things. Make the story that is yours and yours only to make, and the quality will come through for those who appreciate it best. Second-guessing helps nobody.

Last note: if the only thing you ever read is SF, that's like someone who dines exclusively at Chipotle. You won't die from it, but you'll sure miss out.

Tags: Science Fiction Repair Shop fiction storytelling